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Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed

Koda, Harold
168 pages
Book of the Year Award (ForeWord) in Art (2001)
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The fascinating image of a ruff designed in 2000 by Junya Watanabe that appears on the front cover of this volume is only a first hint of the wealth of images and discussions that fills the pages of Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed. This beautiful and thought-provoking book presents many of the extraordinary and diverse transformations that the body has endured in fashion over time and across cultures. It demonstrates that an undeniable beauty abides throughout the subtle and the radical manipulations that have occurred as part of the continuing evolution of the concept of beauty. Fashion has practiced extreme strategies to portray shifting concepts of the physical ideal. The physical areas of the body have been variously and strategically adjusted. They have been constricted, padded, truncated, or extended to achieve fashion's goal through subtle visual adjustments of proportion, less subtle prostheses, and, often, deliberate physical changes. Extreme Beauty incorporates striking examples from the past and present, from Africa, America, China, Europe, Japan, and Southeast Asia to portray many of the specific ways this has happened.

The book's author, Harold Koda, is Curator of The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He has organized this book into five chapters. In each, he examines a particular zone of the body in detail—the neck and shoulders, the chest, the waist, the hips, and the feet. The chapter introductions provide a chronological outline of the transformations that have characterized each zone. These are followed by a series of eye-opening groupings of illustrations and text that enlighten the reader about issues surrounding them. As one reads the text, one looks at visual examples that directly illustrate interrelationships and contrasts that have occurred in different styles in different periods. In the "Neck and Shoulders" chapter, you witness the neck-extending chokers of the Maasai, of Edwardian beauties, and of John Galliano's more recent designs for Dior. "Chest" includes the pigeon-breasted mono-bosom style of the early twentieth century, the 1920s Air Up bra, and the phenomenon of underwear as outerwear from the sheer Neoclassical style worn by Madame Récamier at the beginning of the nineteenth century to the bustier created by Issey Miyake in 2000. "Waist" discusses the waist suppression enforced by sixteenth-century iron corsets, the cinches worn by early nineteenth-century dandies, the waist bindings of African men, and the man's corsets created in the past and surprisingly, in the late twentieth century, by the designer known as Mr. Pearl. In "Hips," you learn that the European high-style eighteenth-century robe à la française reached formidable widths of up to six feet, requiring their wearers to pass through doorways sideways. You discover the relationship between Thierry Mugler's apron dress of 1991 and men's sixteenth-century trunk hose. "Feet" reveals geisha tottering on raised geta, or clogs, the bound feet and caged nails of aristocratic Manchu women, and the stiletto heels of the 1950s. A fascinating connection is made between the early sixteenth-century Venetian footwear called chopines and the platform shoes in vogue in recent years, both of which have reached a height that actually makes them dangerous to wear.

The elegant and thoughtful design is enhanced by wonderful full-page views, close-ups, and details. The amazingly varied illustrations include images of models on the runway, a variety of views of Africans and Asians wearing the costumes of their cultures, and documentary shots of costumes and the often complex supports worn underneath them. These are augmented by reproductions of paintings, sculpture, armor, photographs, and amusing period prints and caricatures that vividly comment on fashion's often excessive attempts to achieve "extreme beauty."

Extreme Beauty accompanied an exhibition on view during the winter of 2001 at The Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This project continues the ongoing mission of The Costume Institute to document and examine diverse aspects of fashion's history and fashion's present.

Consuelo Vanderbilt (1876–1964), Duchess of Marlborough, and Her Son, Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill (1898–1956), Giovanni Boldini  Italian, Oil on canvas
Giovanni Boldini
Portrait of a Woman, Cornelis de Vos  Flemish, Oil on wood
Cornelis de Vos
The Pride of Women: Ruffs, Maerten de Vos  Netherlandish, engraved paper, Dutch
Maerten de Vos
ca. 1600
Les Invisibles (The Invisible Ones), William Brocas  Irish, Hand-colored etching with roulette
Multiple artists/makers
Margherita Gonzaga (1591–1632), Princess of Mantua, Frans Pourbus the Younger  Netherlandish, Oil on canvas
Frans Pourbus the Younger
Portrait of a Young Woman, Cornelis de Vos  Flemish, Oil on canvas
Cornelis de Vos
Wedding ensemble, cotton, French
Sleeve supports, cotton, baleen, British
ca. 1828
Sleeve supports, cotton, American or European
American or European
[Album of 226 albumen silver prints of Japan], Kusakabe Kimbei  Japanese, Albumen silver prints
Multiple artists/makers
Le Bon Genre: Observations sur les modes et les usages de Paris, La Messangère , Paris French, plates: color engravings
Multiple artists/makers
Corset cover, cotton, American
Standing Woman, Gaston Lachaise  American, Bronze
Gaston Lachaise
1912–15; cast 1930
Thomas Rowlandson
S. W. Fores
May 18, 1791
Corset, silk, linen, leather, wood, baleen, French
late 1760s
Corset, silk, Italian
C'est Unique! J'ai Pris Quatre Tailles..., from Émotions Parisiennes, published in Le Charivari, February 7, 1840, Honoré Daumier  French, Colored lithograph; second state of two (Delteil)
Multiple artists/makers
February 7, 1840
Corset, Maison Léoty  French, silk, French
Maison Léoty
Evening dress, Jacques Fath  French, cellulose acetate, French
Jacques Fath
House of Jacques Fath
spring/summer 1947
Nude Man Standing with One Arm Raised, Anonymous, Italian, early 19th century  Italian, Pen and brown ink, over black chalk
Anonymous, Italian, early 19th century
Antonio Canova
early 19th century
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Koda, Harold, and Metropolitan Museum of Art, eds. 2012. Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed ; [Published in Conjunction with the Exhibition “Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed” Held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from December 6, 2001, through March 3, 2002]. 6. printing. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.